The funny thing about routines is that, eventually, they are all broken. An early morning habit of, say, brushing your teeth within the minute of rolling out of bed or the habitual run to Dunky D for a medium roast may be your ritual for months or years, but like all things in life, they must stop at some time.
For Mrs. Tamara McHaney of the Science and Special Education Department of LFHS, her routine of almost thirty three years is almost at its end. This spring Mrs. McHaney is retiring from Lake Forest High School alongside two other faculty members. While her goodbye is tragic, the impact–and happiness–that Mrs. McHaney will leave on LFHS is indelible.
For those who do not know her, Mrs. McHaney is a true triple threat at LFHS: she’s been a special education teacher in the LRC since her first year working here, along with teaching environmental science and coaching various sports throughout the years.
This year is, simply put, Mrs. McHaney’s senior year. “I’m feeling fantastic,” Mrs. McHaney confided. “I told my kids at the beginning of the year that I’m graduating with them.”
Throughout the entirety of Mrs. McHaney’s tenure, there have been five different principals, four athletic directors, five superintendents, a teacher’s strike, and the construction of the whole athletic wing, pool, and commons. McHaney–a kindly woman with a deep, amiable laugh–has seen it all at LFHS.
“Literally, everything that could have changed has,” Mrs. McHaney laughed, studying the walls of the school around her, recalling the LFHS of her past. “A lot of my colleagues have retired and a lot of new people have started working here.”
Fellow staff and teachers–as well as physical hallways and classrooms–have come and gone, and so have her students. Every year, McHaney receives 24 special education students on her caseload with whom she works with on schoolwork and studying help. She works with six to eight students a day on an individual basis.
However, Mrs. McHaney has a perk that many other teachers in the high school do not–as a special ed. teacher, she works with the same student from their first day of freshman year to their last day of senior year. As a result, Mrs. McHaney gets to know her students on a truly personal level. She knows what they they love and what makes them tick, she rejoices in their success, and when there are setbacks, she works hard to ensure that they get back on track.
The amount of respect and trust between Mrs. McHaney and her students is unparalleled in other student-teacher relationships.
“I love it,” she said, fondly overseeing her humming classroom.“They are able to get to know who I am, and I them, and they trust me more. It gets real personal, you know.”
Just the mere presence of the students in her classroom is a true testament to the care and effort that Mrs. McHaney puts into the job, and the love that is reciprocated by her students in return. The period was just a free period for Mrs. McHaney, not a scheduled LRC class–yet, her students had come in on their own free time to get help on their homework and chat with Mrs. McHaney.
“Both of my parents were educators, and that’s what drew me to it initially,” Mrs. McHaney said of decision to teach special education. “But I also had a brother who was born with profound intellectual disabilities. So, I think because of that I was drawn even closer to the job.”
The Eastern Illinois University and Saint Xavier University grad, born in Mount Vernon, Illinois, (“A small, small town about 330 miles south of here,” McHaney cracked) spent one year at another school before coming over the LFHS in 1984 as a special education teacher.
Special education, Mrs. McHaney explained, is not a field that you can learn from college lectures and textbook readings.
“Sure, you learn the paperwork in college,” Mrs. McHaney said. “And that’s one of the challenging things, the paperwork. They change how we write our IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) frequently, so we always have to change with that. But you don’t learn how to teach in college. That is on-the-job training. You meet the students, and they teach you.”
Undoubtedly, the students are an integral aspect of the job. Regardless if they are her special ed. students or her science students, Mrs. McHaney has entered work everyday with the goal to improve the lives of her students, either through education or via simply being a helping hand and a guiding voice.
Not to say, however, that the job is without it’s struggles. “Everything is unpredictable. When you’re working with so many different students–all of them with varying needs–then everyday can be unpredictable.”
Mrs. McHaney paused. “Nothing is status quo here.”
It would be wrong to say that teaching is not a taxing job, but no matter the challenges, there is one aspect of the job that McHaney finds the most rewarding: keeping in touch with her students once they’re out of high school. They return from college, regaling stories of the success they’ve found, whether it be in school or their career; they tell of the happiness they have found in life–happiness that they have found, in part, from the support and guidance of Mrs. McHaney.
“They see me and tell me their success stories, basically. They tell me about their jobs and their families. We even keep in contact through LinkedIn,” Mrs. McHaney chuckled. “But that’s what I want to see, that they’re happy.”
While she may no longer be an everyday-character in the halls and classrooms of LFHS in her retirement, Mrs. McHaney does not plan on disappearing from the community entirely. She will continue her position as the LFHS girl’s golf coach, a job that she holds dear. Throughout her thirty three years at Lake Forest, Mrs. McHaney has coached a plethora of different sports, including badminton, softball, and, most notably, Varsity field hockey, with whom she won six state championships.
“When you teach special ed., you meet a bunch of great students, but I wanted to know a variety of kids,” Mrs. McHaney said. “I liked seeing the kids work really hard and see these efforts come to fruition. I love coaching, it was probably one of my favorite parts of the job.”
Along with coaching, Mrs. McHaney plans on volunteering at her local food pantry, golfing on her own, and visiting her family in Texas. “[I’m] definitely going to get out of here for the winter. I’m going to keep busy.”
One morning in early June, Mrs. McHaney will break her routine for the first time in thirty three years and leave Lake Forest High School for the last time as a teacher. The goodbye will be bittersweet, but she is confident that she will walk away proud of the wisdom that she has passed on to her students, and of the wisdom they passed to her in turn.
“I learned from them patience and acceptance. I learned how to adapt to change, because we had to change all the time and I’ve learned to do that more often. This has been my entire career here, so it’s going to be extremely bittersweet leaving, I can tell you,” Mrs. McHaney imparted. “It’s going to be a different situation for me. I’ve never known anything else than Lake Forest High School.”
In her thirty three year tenure at Lake Forest High School, Mrs. McHaney has facilitated the development of happiness in her student’s lives. Few teachers’ presence at Lake Forest High School will be as sorely missed as that of Mrs. McHaney; few would be able to deny the impact that Mrs. McHaney will leave on not only her students, but LFHS as an institution.
Upon that remark, Mrs. McHaney smiled softly, gazing out at her kids in front of her. “I sure hope I left an impact, for the better. That was my goal.”